Dress to Express

I used to see a man strolling along the sidewalks of the business district.  He was a very distinguished looking man who always wore a grey pinstriped three piece suit, a carefully knotted tie, a white, starched, French-cuff shirt, and a bowler hat.  He had balloon-rim spectacles and carried a rolled umbrella.  I never heard him speak, so I don’t actually know, but he seemed the stereotypic Londoner from The City.  When people saw him, they were impressed, and regarded him respectfully.  You knew that he was someone important, and someone to be taken seriously, just by the way he dressed.  In the few years in which I frequently encountered him, no one ever thought otherwise.

I’m at a time in my life when I don’t really know what’s appropriate or suitable attire because I no longer work the 9-5 salt-mines.  I’m very much a free agent and I’m beginning to occupy a professional world that is very flexible.  I attend a variety of meetings throughout the month, and I try to dress appropriately for each meeting.  I’m not entirely sure how to gauge ‘appropriateness’.  If I shave, when I arrive at the meeting, many of the other men are unshaven; if I wear a tie, I may be one of three or four who did—the other men have open necked collars or tee-shirts.  And of course, if I don’t shave, or don’t wear a tie, the party I’m meeting will arrive dressed in a hand-tailored three piece suit with silk necktie, shaven almost surgically close, and smelling of a wisp of something spicy, slightly sweet, and probably imported.  I never seem to get it right.

Choice of attire is to some extent governed by the season of the year.  There are several shops near where I stay, and I see the staff coming and going every day.  I have a much different sense of them when they’re wearing Oxford shirts and shoes than I do when they’re wearing faded tee shirts and sandals.  The attire at the moment is less formal because it’s summer; in the winter, these people make a much different impression sartorially.

Some people dress a particular way as an occupational representation.  The clergy have their round collars; police, fire, the military have their uniforms.  When I was on the East Coast, I often visited large international companies, and the quality of attire was always most professional.  Doubtless, after the bell rang and they all went home, they were probably in sweat pants and sneakers, but that would be a different environment.  While some national store and restaurant chains have a ‘uniform’ of some description, many other shops do not, and it becomes difficult to tell the inmates from the visitors.

We not only dress to express ourselves, we dress (or should) to address our environments.  It’s unsuitable to show up to the opera in worn-out jeans and a ratty tee shirt unless you want people to think you’re a complete clot.  (It’s unsuitable to change the oil in your car wearing a Saville Row suit, too!  People will think you’re a snob.)  When I was a boy, men and boys wore coats and ties to church on Sunday; women and girls wore dresses, hats, and gloves.  To-day, it’s wonderful if they just show up.

Choice of attire expresses the wearer’s regard for the place s/he’s in.  It would be insulting to show up to a funeral dressed like an Easter egg (but I know a fire captain who had to be dressed by his wife to prevent such things from happening.)  Would you be well-received at the UN wearing a shirt that said, ‘Make tea, not war!’  Given a chance to meet someone you’ve admired for a long time, what impression would you like to make?  Your choice of clothes is telling.  People notice these things.

As I mentioned, some people dress to represent their vocations.  The attire is sometimes symbolic and represents authority, and other times is merely practical.  Others dress to represent the magnitude, dignity or gravity of their work.  In many Commonwealth countries, attorneys in court (barristers) wear a robe and horse-hair wig, to demonstrate respect for the law and the majesty of the law (and scare the hell out of the witnesses.)  To show up looking like Gidget wouldn’t have the same impact, would it?  Still other people dress to express their individuality, conformity, nonconformity, respect or lack of it, and their regard for themselves and others in the environments in which you meet them.  I suppose people are dressing to express themselves, but it’s too bad so many of them require an interpreter.

When I think of that man in the bowler hat, it is inconceivable to me that anyone would ever laugh at him.  When I think of Fire Captain Easter Egg, it is inconceivable that anyone would take him seriously.  I think of some of the costumes I see on the street—they could scarcely be considered ‘street wear’—they do not seem to me to express the wearer’s individuality so much as they do her/his rage or contempt for convention by way of flamboyance.  People want to make a statement, and this is certainly a way to do it, but is it a statement others will understand?  Is it the statement you mean?  You should be careful what you say and how you say it.

In fact, there is only one group which seems to have nothing to say for themselves at all.

Nudists.

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2 Comments

  • Similar observations can be made about the variety of hair styles, hair colors, etc.
    Also, how about the explosion s use of tattoos?

  • Although I think 98% of the tattoos I have seen are hideous, tattooing has a long history and sometimes can actually be quite attractive. I have not been around for any of those times. I agree with you fully about hair styles, hair colouring, and make up in general. If they are dressing to express, I’m reluctant to find out what they’re saying.

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